Aristotle, Pope Leo XIII and Islamic Law: Is it as harmful as it appears?

Emily Fowler – Period 2

If you were to turn on the radio or television this very moment and tune into a news station of any sort, chances are you will come across the words “ISIS”, “ISIL”, or “Al Qaeda.” In the media you will find gross amounts of anti-Islamic blog posts and rants against infamous Sharia Law. In fact, I was so discouraged with my numerous unsuccessful attempts to find unbiased sources to write this piece, I almost switched topics. It is blatantly obvious that in today’s world, Islam, Islamic law, and the Arab World are highly disliked throughout the world. And, it is for this same reason that many people do not realize that there is in fact a correlation between Islamic Law and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and that there is an even stronger correlation between Islamic Law and Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum on Capital and Labor.

ALLAH_Qurani_Karim_Islam_by_NamfloW Before I begin, it is important to make it clear that it is in accordance with Muslim teachings and beliefs that it is in the best interest of man that church and state are to be combined; therefore when I refer to “Islamic Law,” I am referring to the political base of Islamic states. It is believed that this combination allows for man to remain disciplined in his faith and as a result, live with greater virtue and excellence.[1] The purpose of this piece is to defend the political structure and reasoning behind the way Islamic states are governed from an economic standpoint using Aristotle’s teachings on property and the fulfillment of purpose, and Pope Leo XIII’s writings on private property.

In order to effectively analyze this somewhat absurd claim that Islamic Law is actually in accordance with the teachings of a Greek philosopher and a Catholic pope, let us begin by looking at traditional Islamic Law. This means not corrupted, untouched, true law based off of Islamic ideals and the Quran. The Quran specifically states and makes it clear that wealth and possessions themselves are not the main goals in one’s life, but rather they are the necessary means of achieving stability, spiritual prosperity, dignity, and essentially happiness.[2] This reflects an almost identical claim made by Aristotle in which he states that “happiness plainly requires external goods” because it is “impossible… to act nobly without some… fortune.”[3]  Aristotle also states that happiness is an exercise rather than a right, and that man must exercise “his facilities in accordance with perfect excellence” in order to maintain or achieve true happiness, while in the Quran, it states that man should use what Allah has given him on this earth because “man requires property in order to fulfill his function as the Khalifah”[4], or representative of Allah. This means living with virtue and in accordance with the Five Pillars of Islam. One of the Five Pillars that stands out when compared to Aristotle’s teachings is charity, or zakat. Charity is a vital aspect of Islam due to the belief that everything on earth is a gift from Allah and is meant to be used as a means to achieve dignity and honor[5]. In order to live in accordance with charity within Islamic Law, man must at give at least 2.5% of his possessions to charity yearly, and he must do so willingly and happily for it to be considered a noble and good act. This reflects Aristotle’s statement claiming that “man is not good… unless he takes pleasure in noble deeds.” It is also believed in Islam that man can be judged as good or bad depending on how he acts and uses what he is given. Like Aristotle, Muslims believe that it is human nature to use possessions and skills with nothing less than excellence and virtue as a means to achieving the ultimate goal, and that this goal can only be found through practice and diligence.

One major opposing argument that one may have against the claim that Islamic law violates the idea that everyone is given the opportunity to fulfill their purpose in life because women are unequal and oppressed. This is a common misconception that can easily be countered by the fact that in Islam, men and women are equal but have different purposes of equal importance to fulfill in life. This supports Aristotle’s claim that “the function of man is exercise of his vital facilities”[6] within reason. In traditional Islam is believed that women’s jobs lie within the family and home, a role of which its importance is often overlooked. If a woman exercises her facilities in order to fulfill her function within the home and family with excellence and reason, she is still able, according to Aristotle’s teachings, to achieve the ultimate goal of happiness and virtue. As for men whose jobs traditionally lie in the workforce, as long as they exercise their facilities with excellence as well, they have the same opportunity to achieve the said goal.

To reiterate what was mentioned earlier, Islamic Law views private property as a necessary means to achieving dignity, honor, and virtue. It is believed that property was given to man from Allah and the only way man can fulfill his function as an advocate of Allah is by means of private property. Because private property is seen as a God-given opportunity (not a right) in Islamic Law and because of the importance of recognizing nature and science within the Islamic religion, it can be assumed that “private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature.”[7] This belief strongly supports and agrees with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in that private ownership is a natural and necessary aspect of mankind. It is seen as self-preservation. Pope Leo XIII’s writings also agree with the Islamic belief that the earth and its resources are God’s gift for the human race, but do not demean the idea or justice of private property. Ownership is established by those who are willing to put in effort and labor into the land they own, or work to pay for the possessions they acquire. One aspect of Islamic law that many find controversial out of context is the statement that if one fails to care for his or her possessions, they may be taken from him and redistributed because he has failed to use the gifts given to him by Allah.[8] While this does appear harsh and somewhat controversial, this is also practiced in the United States in the form of foreclosure and is backed by Pope Leo XIII’s claim that man must contribute something in order to have private property whether it is through labor, skills, or money. Man must contribute in some way using the means in which he is given in order to achieve private property and ultimately fulfill his goal and purpose.[9] In addition, the statement that inequality exists because each people “differ in capacity skill, health, [and] strength” is also supported by the Islamic views on gender roles that were also stated earlier. According to Islamic Law, men and women have different but equally challenging and important skill sets that wouldcalligraphy-40586_640 help them to fulfill their purpose in different ways. As Pope Leo XIII states, this “inequality” is not in fact disadvantageous, but is rather more productive due to the fact that each person’s individual skills can be put to use in many parts of a purpose. Pope Leo XIII also emphasizes the importance of religion and Christian morals in the workforce and in the practice of living a virtuous life. He states that while private ownership is natural and necessary for the continuation of mankind, he also points out the importance of alms giving and duty towards the poor.[10] This same idea is reflected in Muslim teachings on charity and the duty to give the poor an opportunity to exercise their “right” to private property and to incorporate Muslim morals into man’s day to day life. Both agree that private property is within human nature and is a necessary aspect of life, and that through the division of labor and charity towards the less fortunate, man can live a productive and fulfilling life.

To conclude, while the basic ideas and beliefs behind the Islamic belief and practice of combining church and state are often seen as harmful and unjust, many of the core beliefs of traditional Islam can be justified through Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum from an economic standpoint. There are strong parallels between Islamic Law in regards to the purpose and use of private property, what is considered private property, as well as justification of the role of women and the policies on charity. While such different topics are often not overlapped or even considered possible to overlap, it is important that more people look into controversial topics such as Islamic Law from different viewpoints in order to see the philosophical parallels and reasoning.

[1] “Church and State in Islam.” Church and State in Islam. January 3, 2003.

[2] “Private Property in Islamic Economics.” December 22, 2011. Accessed December 9, 2014.

[3] Aristotle.”Book I.” In The Nicomachean Ethics Chapter 8

[4] Ahmad, Imad-ad-Dean. “Islamic Views on Property Rights, Economic Freedom, and Entrepreneurship: Application to Iraq.” May 8, 2003.

[5] “Beliefs and Daily Lives of Muslims.” Accessed December 6, 2014.

[6]  Aristotle. “Book I.” In The Nicomachean Ethics. Chapter 9

[7] Rerum Novarum Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor.

[8] Sait, Siraj, and Hilary Lim. “Land, Law, and Islam.” Accessed December 6, 2014.

[9] Pope Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor.

[10] Ibid.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Imad-ad-Dean. “Islamic Views on Property Rights, Economic Freedom, and Entrepreneurship: Application to Iraq.” May 8, 2003. Accessed December 6, 2014.

“Beliefs and Daily Lives of Muslims.” Accessed December 6, 2014.

“Church and State in Islam.” Church and State in Islam. January 3, 2003. Accessed December 9, 2014.

“Just Islam : The True Meaning of Jihad.” Accessed December 9, 2014.

“Private Property in Islamic Economics.” December 22, 2011. Accessed December 9, 2014.

Pope Leo XIII Rerum Novarum Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor.

Sait, Siraj, and Hilary Lim. “Land, Law, and Islam.” Accessed December 6, 2014.

Aristotle. “Book I.” In The Nicomachean Ethics.


2 thoughts on “Aristotle, Pope Leo XIII and Islamic Law: Is it as harmful as it appears?

  1. This is a really cool way to connect what a Catholic Pope says with what the Quran says. Although you would never associate with the similarities between the two religions, it’s true how they are quite similar. It just depends on how extreme some followers will take it..

  2. Somewhat illogically, Islam is viewed in a negative light, and I feel like this article really sheds an unbiased view on the culture in relativity with Aristotle and Pope Leo. I really hadn’t thought much about true Islamic Law, mainly because there is so much negativity and hatred surrounding the culture. However, this article helps clearly define the misconceptions and the real meanings of the Islamic Law. Additionally, I was surprised that you found so many correlations between Islamic Law and Aristotle’s views as well as Pope Leo’s view concerning private property. Aristotle’s views of happiness and purpose in life work really well within the Islamic Law, which I don’t think I would have seen on my own if I hadn’t possessed the knowledge of what true Islamic Law really is. I think that with more information about Islamic culture, people in other country’s would have a much more understanding and supportive view, and this blog makes a strong case for that.

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